Appeal from the Circuit Court of Winnebago County. No. 99-JA-59 Honorable Patrick L. Heaslip
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Grometer
In this consolidated appeal, respondent mother, Teresa N.-S., and respondent father, Jason B., appeal from the January 3, 2003, order of the circuit court of Winnebago County terminating their parental rights to their daughter, Jacien B. In appeal No. 2--03--0018, Teresa argues that (1) the trial court's finding of unfitness was against the manifest weight of the evidence and (2) the trial court abused its discretion in finding that it was in the minor's best interests to terminate her parental rights. In appeal No. 2--03--0030, Jason argues that the trial court abused its discretion in finding that it was in the minor's best interest to terminate his parental rights. With respect to appeal No. 2--03--0018, we reverse the judgment of the trial court and remand the cause for further proceedings. With respect to appeal No, 2--03--0030, we affirm the judgment of the trial court.
On March 12, 1999, Teresa gave birth to Jacien. Paternity tests revealed that Jason is Jacien's biological father. At the time of Jacien's birth, Teresa tested positive for the presence of cocaine. Jacien tested negative for the presence of drugs. On March 17, 1999, the State filed a four-count petition alleging that Jacien was a neglected minor pursuant to section 2--3 of the Juvenile Court Act of 1987 (Juvenile Court Act) (705 ILCS 405/2--3 (West 1998)). Respondents waived their right to a hearing on whether probable cause existed that Jacien was neglected. The trial court then placed Jacien in the temporary custody of the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS).
On August 4, 1999, the trial court conducted an adjudicatory hearing at which Teresa stipulated to two counts of the neglect petition. Specifically, Teresa stipulated to count I, which alleged that she tested positive for cocaine at Jacien's birth, and to count III, which alleged that one of Jacien's siblings was adjudicated a neglected minor because he was born cocaine-exposed. The State dismissed the remaining counts. Following a dispositional hearing on November 1, 1999, Jacien was made a ward of the court and placed in the custody and guardianship of DCFS. The dispositional order directed respondents to cooperate with all drug, alcohol, and domestic violence services required by DCFS.
On February 24, 2000, the State filed a motion seeking the termination of the parental rights of Teresa and Jason to Jacien and the appointment of a guardian with the power to consent to the minor's adoption. The State subsequently moved to dismiss this motion. However, on August 25, 2000, the State filed the motion at issue in this appeal. The motion contained three counts of unfitness with respect to Teresa, including an allegation that she violated section 1(D)(m) of the Adoption Act (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(m) (West 2000)) in that she "failed to make reasonable efforts to correct the conditions that were the basis for the removal of the child from her, or to make reasonable progress toward the return of the child to her within nine (9) months after an adjudication of neglect." The motion also alleged that Jason was unfit to have a child on three grounds, including a violation of section 1(D)(m).
The unfitness phase of the hearing was held over several dates between June 5, 2002, and December 18, 2002. Among those witnesses who testified at the hearing were Teresa, Jason, the DCFS caseworker assigned to Jacien's case, and Teresa's substance-abuse counselor. At the hearing, the court learned that both Teresa and Jason were convicted of drug-related offenses arising from an incident occurring in June 2000. Apparently, the arrests occurred within 24 hours of the date that Teresa completed substance-abuse treatment. At the time of the hearing, Teresa was still incarcerated but was expected to be released in March 2003. Jason was released from prison in April 2002. At the conclusion of the unfitness phase of the hearing, the trial court found Teresa to be an unfit parent. Specifically, the court remarked:
"[T]he Court finds *** that the State has met its burden of proof and has demonstrated by clear and convincing evidence that *** Teresa *** [is] an unfit person to have this child *** in that [she has] failed to make reasonable efforts to correct the conditions that were the basis for the removal of the child from [her] or to make reasonable progress towards the return of the child to [her] within nine months after the adjudication of the child as a neglected minor.
The disposition/adjudication date was November the 1st of the year 1999. The nine-month period ran August the 1st of the year 2000. Clearly within that period of time [Teresa was] actively selling and manufacturing drugs, except for the period of time when [she was] in jail; and clearly that does not constitute reasonable efforts. [She] was living a charade, trying to pull one over on everyone."
The court also found Jason to be an unfit parent on the basis that he "failed to make reasonable efforts to correct the conditions that were the basis for the removal of the child from him or to make reasonable progress towards the return of the child to him within nine months after the adjudication of the child as a neglected minor." The matter then proceeded to the best-interest phase of the hearing.
During the best-interest phase, the State first called Renee Small, the DCFS adoption worker assigned to Jacien's case. Small testified that since Jacien was discharged from the hospital after her birth, she has resided with Pat E. in a DCFS foster home. According to Small, Jacien is doing well. The minor relates to Pat as a parent, refers to Pat as "mom," and seeks Pat to meet her needs and provide affection. Small stated that Pat is very involved in therapy sessions Jacien attends. In fact, Small received a letter from one of Jacien's doctors detailing how active Pat was and how her participation has helped Jacien progress.
Small noted that Jacien has been in the system for more than three years and that it is important for her to have permanency. Small pointed out that Jacien has resided with Pat since birth, she has made "incredible progress" in her placement, and there is a strong attachment between Pat and Jacien. Small offered that Pat appears to be financially secure and that Jacien will qualify for an adoption subsidy through DCFS if she is adopted. Small opined that Jacien will continue to thrive in this environment and that allowing Jacien to remain in her current environment is the best way for the minor to achieve permanency. Small concluded that it is in Jacien's best interest to be freed for adoption. On cross-examination, Small acknowledged that Pat is 66 years old. However, she offered that Pat is healthy, that she has been able to meet Jacien's needs, and that Pat and Jacien have a very strong attachment.
Teresa testified that she loves Jacien and that she would refrain from engaging in criminal activity once she is released from prison. Teresa testified that upon her release from prison, she plans to reside with her mom and look for work. Eventually she intends to find her own place. Teresa testified that she has been diagnosed with a bipolar disorder. However, she believed that she will be able to care for Jacien when she is released from prison. She expects to seek substance-abuse treatment and mental health counseling upon her ...